Success and the Art of Failure
We live in a society in which economic success is paramount. In our system of late capitalism or neoliberalism, success is not an option. Success is a must. At least, it still seems to be a must. Ask anybody what’s success and they will tell you: „It’s what makes me happy.“ Beyond that, they’ll probably tell you that success is or ought to be something measurable, quantifiable, something that can be expressed in volume terms or be shared via Facebook or Instagram.
Success used to be something to do with achievement, with hard work – it’s not anymore. Today, if you want „to make it“, you don’t need a PhD in economics anymore, you can do it the easy way. Harvard? Wall Street? All of this seems so yesterday … considering that today you can earn millions by filming yourself while pouting and/or uttering some bullshit and then posting the whole thing on You Tube.
From a philosophical point of view, economic success doesn’t equal happiness, if by happiness you mean the good life as defined by Aristotle and ancient Greek philosophy: „Eudaimonia“.
The Three Types of Success
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If you strive for a good, happy life, economic success can never be enough. You also need to attain something like esthetic success – by creating something beautiful, by bringing beauty into the world. A work of art, a book. What you bring to this world can also be a home. If you manage to create a real beautiful and cozy home with nice furtinure, a nice atmosphere for yourself and others, that’s a lot. Especially in our globalized, digitalized world.
The third ingredient for a good life would be ethical success. That you can achieve by doing good. You’re ethically succesful when you make it your habit to act in a moral way. Why should you do that? Not because you just feel in the mood to do so, of course. But because you recognize the objective necessity, because you see the normative implications.
In real life there’s something that is at least as important than success. Failure. Why? Because only by failing can you gain the expertise you need in order to succeed economically, esthetically, ethically. If you don’t take that into account, if you never risk failure, you’ll fail all the more. You won’t reach either type of success. You’ll never reach good life. Eudaimonia.
[selectivetweet]The will to experiment is the essence of a good life[/selectivetweet]
So the art of failure, what’s it all about? I think what you really need if you want to excel in this art is the will to experiment. Experimenting might in fact be the essence of failure; that is, the essence of a good life.
No experiments, no failure, no success
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In our culture, perfectionism, efficiency, effectiveness, goal orientation seem like the supreme ideals, if you want to make it economically. From the youngest age we are taught to do things and efficiently, effectively and as quickly as possible. They tell us that we must get rid of uncertainties because uncertainties are bad – even though it’s impossible to get rid of them since life is by definition very uncertain.
Despite this fact, we’re all crazy about reaching our goals in time – without ever asking ourselves why. Without really understanding the deeper meaning of our being constantly in a rush or feeling stressed out. For many people, life has become what it’s not: a casting show. A casting show that is all about outrivaling their competitors by means of aggressive self-marketing. For them, the meaning of life consists in getting the jurors’ approval: “You made it – now move on to the next level!” But what for? When there is always one more level to reach and after that, still another one…
No one has ever become his or her true self by worshipping the gods of efficiency, success and entitlement. What really helps us to become our own „successful“ self is not winning every competition – it’s the times when we experience failure.
These times teach us:
- Patience: to accept the things we cannot change and to look towards the future with hope and trust
- Values: it’s only when we feel really lost that we get to know ourselves and our values, it’s only then that we realize that in this world it’s not all about winning – it’s about commitment, humanity and love
- Creativity: only when we experience the limits to what we can do are we really motivated to be creative. Only then are we able to find happiness – in places where under normal circumstances we wouldn’t suspect to find it. We might even become creative to the extent that we’re happy just because we realize that we possess two arms and legs that are fully functional.
From my years of experimentation and failure I formed what has become my official label: „philosophy works! Advice for the brave“.
Failure is what success should be all about. If you want to master the art of failure, that is, if you want succeed in the eudaimonic way, all you need is the will to experiment – and to believe in yourself. Believing in yourself is paramount. I might be sounding a little bit like Oprah Winfrey right know, but I think that’s very true. In bad times, I still think of my former English teacher. Back in the days when I was a teenager, very insecure, very self-conscious, she used to tell me and the other kids: „If you really want it, you can do it!“. A huge exaggeration, of course. But this was not Oprah speaking. This was my English teacher’s very own, very subtle way to encourage us to fail.
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